White noise of TV news spells doom for media

Maurya TV office by Vijay Pandey (5)There has been a sharp decline in the standards of Indian media, specifically that of television ‘news channels’, but there appears to be no end to it stooping lower than before. Watching news on television has now become so irritating that more and more people are giving up watching news on television screens.

While the newspapers, particularly the mainstream media and the multi-edition Hindi and regional language newspapers, have by and large maintained reasonably good standards of reporting, it is the dumbing down of the electronic media that is shocking. In this field the English news channels are only a step behind the vernacular ones and at times even outdo the other.

The villain-in-chief is no other than Arnab Goswami. Thanks to his marketing and abrasive style, his theatrics dominate the discussions at social gatherings. One rarely comes across anyone liking his style or appreciating his journalism. Even as most professional journalists don’t consider him one from their tribe, he is the one who is taken as an example or yardstick for the declining standards of journalism.

As dyed-in-the-wool ‘traditional’ journalists like me, who have been in print journalism for long, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the electronic media. As it is, almost all social conversation, and even among the professionals, boils down to these so-called television news channels. There is hardly any reference to the quality journalism still practiced in large sections of print journalism and specifically in the mainstream media.

News through the social media and digital platforms is taking baby steps in the country and most of the news websites are in the development stage. At times, the ‘viral’ news also turns out to be fake news. That’s mainly because there are no gatekeepers and people blindly forward whatever comes their way. Recently there was a campaign to get ‘signatures’ or endorsement for building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya as the Supreme Court “had asked for a referendum”. The post said that Muslims had voted for a masjid at the site in large numbers and challenged the Hindus to do it in large numbers. Obviously there was no such reference from Supreme Court or that it had refused to adjudicate in the dispute. There are, however, credible news websites but few take the trouble to cross check the facts.

One is not shocked to find headlines like “Kya gaye ka doodh pite hain aliens (Do aliens drink cow’s milk)” or “Badalon mein dikhe bhagwan (God seen in clouds)”. Then there are anchors dressed in olive green uniforms talking of skirmishes at the border together with a sand model of the section.The latest example of the dumbing down of television news is the way almost all channels have covered the tragic death of the famous Bollywood actress Sridevi.

There is no doubt that the sudden death of a famous personality and that too at a comparatively young age makes news. Virtually everyone who heard about the tragedy received a shock and her death became one of the most discussed news stories. The circumstances and curiosity about the sudden death in a foreign land added to the fact that she was a heart throb due to her acting in dozens of Hindi and South Indian films. She was known for her dancing and acting skills. Although she had almost quit films for a decade and a half, she staged a comeback as an accomplished actor in the film English Vinglish and a couple of other films.

Thus, the curiosity over her sudden death was natural. However, the way most television channels went about covering her death was shameful. The initial reports about her death were sketchy but that did not prevent the channels from reaching ridiculous conclusions.

As the first reports had said that she had died due to a sudden heart attack, the so-called ‘experts’ as also news anchors put the focus on the alleged plastic surgeries she had undergone just to keep slim and keep her skin tight. There were speculations that she had undergone over two dozen such surgeries (some even claiming the exact figure of 27) and blamed her for poor diet and obsession with keeping slim.

The ‘experts’ said the sudden heart attack was a ‘lesson’ for others who did not lead a healthy lifestyle. Medical experts were all over the channels to affirm that frequent surgeries could do much damage and the ‘tendency’ to keep looking young and fit could lead to disasters such as in the case of Sridevi. But then as soon as news came from Dubai that she had accidentally drowned, these channels took an about turn and began focusing on her taking or not taking hard drinks. A self-proclaimed “close associate” disclosed that she used to take “mild drinks” like wine but never took “hard drinks”. It is not clear whether he thought those who take hard drinks must die and that there was nothing strange or unusual about it.The dozens of anchors and ‘experts’ then raised doubts on how anyone could drown in a bathtub. This led to conspiracy theories and suspicion at possible murder! The almost endless debate continued on virtually every news channels and the TV remote control was of little help. A section of social media did mock the priorities of television news channels even as so many other major events go unreported.

And the way they reported the death and the ‘mystery’ would go down in the annals of Indian television history as the most insensitive, shocking and disgusting coverage ever. One of the channels has one of its anchors pose near a bath tub with a glass of window in her hand. Another channel floated a photograph of the late actress in a bathtub.

The headline of one of the English channels was : “Was Jahnavi (Sridevi’s daughter) inconsolable after her mother’s death?” Another shared the dimensions of the bathtub at 5 feet in length and 13 inches in height. A leading Hindi channel showed the “Maut ka bathtub” while another asked “Kamra number 2201 me Kya hua” and yet other asked: “Kyun dinner date per lejana chahte they Boney Kapoor?”

The unease and irritation with news channels is growing and it would be a mistake on the part of their managements if they think such coverage would earn them more TRPs and consequently more revenue through advertisements. As a member of media community for nearly four decades, I find it impossible to defend such coverages even though I remain a strong votary for the freedom of the press. No wonder more and more citizens are turning towards credible digital media, including that managed by established newspapers, to get to real news developments. It’s time for television news channels to either mend their ways or look ahead for their own doom.